Marcus A. Nannini, 2022 Editor’s Choice Award Winner, The Readers House Magazine, London, England. June 2, 2022. Winner, 2019 NON FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR. Winner, 2020 NON FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR-HISTORY CATEGORY. Winner, OVERALL GRAND PRIZE NON FICTION BOOK 2021-2022.
15-year-old Sam had been told all he had to do was reach the United States and money would come to him as if by magic. Disappointed but not discouraged his first job was as a shoeshine boy; he had faith in himself.
Sam climbed the ladder at the Union Pacific Railroad, each time earning a little more than before and in 1911 struck out on his own. By 1929 he owned one of the largest road construction companies in the Midwest, on his sway to becoming an international philanthropist. He shared his wealth with individuals, towns, and charities from Italy to California.
No person could imagine the consequences when teenage Silvio Nannini borrowed $2,000 from his future father-in-law, enabling him to bid arrivederci to Italy in 1905. Silvio had been denied the hand in marriage of Giaconda, the love of his life because he lacked financial stability. High school degree in hand, he left everything and everyone he knew to make his fortune in America, hoping he may one day return and marry her.
Before leaving Ellis Island he was hired by the Union Pacific Railroad. He was employed as a “Boot Black” on UP’s intercontinental train routes. The UP changed his name to “Sam” and misspelled his surname as “Nanini.” Both stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Sam moved up the ladder at the UP. He was appointed to manage the UP hotel for its Chinese laborers in Tacoma, Washington. His improvements to the hotel and menu resulted in a more productive workforce. The UP took notice and sent him to Anchorage, Alaska, to manage their livery operations. Following a severe injury from a “jackass,” Sam returned to Italy in 1911, where he obtained the blessing of Giaconda’s father. They were immediately wed and traveled to Chicago, where they settled in a predominantly Tuscan neighborhood.
Sam soon proved to be both resourceful and a visionary. He purchased a horse and buckboard. Driving up and down the alleys of Chicago’s west side, he’d call out, “Rags! Bring out your old rags and metal, and I’ll sing you a song.” The profits allowed him to buy, in cash, the brick, four-level building he had been renting. In a couple of years he had gone from shoveling coal in exchange for reduced rent to owning the building outright.
He earned enough money to purchase the necessary equipment and fixtures to start an Italian taffy candy factory and retail store. He eventually sold and one hundred percent financed the candy business and the building, including a pair of residential rental units to a young Italian couple who made a good living with it until they retired in the late 1960s.
Nanini sold the Rags business to a man in desperate need, taking back a promissory note which he never called due. Sam would say if questioned, “He had a wife and two bambinos. He needed the business to live, while I didn’t.” It was not the only instance of Sam setting people up in a business.
One day in the early 1920s, Giaconda invited a neighbor for dinner who brought with her homemade Italian bread and sweetbreads. Sam was so impressed he set the neighbor up with her own bread and sweetbread bakery located in the heart of the neighborhood. Eventually, her two sons took over and operated the bakery into the 1980s.
By 1919 Sam founded his own road construction company, Rock Road Construction-Chicago. The same year, the Mayor of Chicago introduced Sam to another up-and-comer, Henry Crown, who recently started Material Service Company. The two men became fast friends, Sam buying all his road-building materials from Henry, who, in exchange, sent business leads to Sam. It proved to be a life-long friendship.
In 1927 two of Al Capone’s henchmen waylaid Sam in front of City Hall and drove him to Cicero. Initially scared for himself and his family, Capone reassured him it was a friendly visit, gave him a drink of Templeton Rye, Capone’s private label, and explained that he needed “a favor” from Sam. Capone explained that money was too messy. He operated by asking favors and reciprocating in the same manner.
Sam reasonably feared the favor would involve burying Capone’s enemies underneath the streets Rock Road was repaving. However, Capone’s “favor” had nothing to do with criminal activity. The gangster desired Sam do him a favor and build him a near-mile-long, curbed, and lighted driveway with sidewalks, along with an immense swimming pool. While Capone never paid for the work, a great deal of municipal contract work inexplicably landed on Sam’s lap, right through the time Capone was transferred to Alcatraz Island years later.
Rock Road was destined to become one of the largest road construction companies in the region. While the 1920s brought much fortune to Sam, the abrupt start of the Great Depression caught Sam with all of his crews and their families in Florida for a winter construction recess. Henry did not hesitate to wire Sam $10,000 to bring everyone back and keep Rock Road solvent. The two young entrepreneurs worked closely together to get through the crisis and the subsequent Great Depression. However, tough financial times did not stop Sam from hosting a grand banquet and dance for his employees in December 1929.
The Depression brought out more of Sam’s ingenuity. Rock Road’s truck fleet was idled each winter with the annual shutdown of the asphalt and concrete plants. Sam decided to mount heating oil tanks onto his seasonal fleet of trucks and founded Bell Oil Company in the winter of 1929/30. Standard Oil of Indiana was more than happy to supply him with as much discounted fuel as needed.
Most of Sam’s residential fuel oil customers were strapped for cash, but Sam told them not to worry. He told them to pay what they could when the oil was delivered. After that, the customers would make monthly payments in whatever amount they might manage. It proved to be a bookkeeping nightmare, but further discounts from Standard Oil, coupled with giving Sam a 120-day delay in payment, kept Bell Oil in business and families with heat. His generosity was a lifesaver for thousands of Chicagoans.
Sam didn’t keep his money to himself. He routinely bankrolled new ventures for friends and friends of friends. Sam was a generous benefactor to countless charities, eventually being honored as the City of Hope Man of the Year, named to the University of Arizona’s President’s Club, and establishing the Sam Nannini Cancer Research Fellowship.
In 1948 he visited his hometown of Ponte Buggianese, Tuscany, Italy, where he discovered WWII had ravaged the entire region. Sam personally undertook the reconstruction of the water and sewer systems, schools, hospitals, municipal buildings, and housing. Sam also constructed a Scuola di Musica and made so many contributions to the area the Italian government awarded him its highest civilian honors, The Order of Merit, the Star of Solidarity, and named him a Commander of the Order of the Italian Republic.
After WWII, Sam moved to Tucson, Arizona, and quickly recognized Tucson had almost unlimited growth potential. Sam built Tucson’s first suburb, Casas Adobes, and Tucson’s first suburban shopping mall, Casas Adobes Shopping Center. Both continue to thrive today.
Local Tucsonans thought he was crazy to set up shop so far from the city limits, but Sam proved them wrong. Eventually, he carved a championship golf course out of a cotton and alfalfa farming operation he purchased many years earlier. Tuscon National Golf Course would be the home of the Dean Martin/NBC Tucson National Open for decades. Jack Nicklaus was an amateur golfer in February 1962 when the golf course opened and was hired as the first Club Pro for Tucson National. By the time Jack’s four-year contract with Tucson National was completed, Jack had established himself as the greatest golfer of his generation and remains immensely popular.
Sam and Giaconda would be married for 63 years before Sam succumbed to the inevitable, but Sam isn’t forgotten. Municipal buildings bear his name, including a Scuola di Musica in Italy, a Tucson, Arizona library, and a Pima County Sheriff’s Police complex. From Arizona to Chicago to Italy, the numerous families he assisted represent an enduring testament to Sam’s generous nature and remarkable foresight.
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